Europe aims to end space access crisis with Ariane 6’s inaugural launch

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The maiden flight of the new Ariane 6 heavy-lift launcher is expected on July 9, four years behind the original schedule and finally ending the recurring development delays and industrial setbacks. Meanwhile, with no domestic launchers available, Europe has had to call on U.S. competitor SpaceX to launch its scientific and Galileo satellites. Toni Tolker-Nielsen, ESA director of space transportation, explains the challenges facing ESA for the early exploitation of Ariane 6 and the strategy put in place for the European space transportation system planned up to the 2030s.
Is Ariane 6 ready for its inaugural flight on July 9? In 1996, the first Ariane 5 blew up after 40 seconds. How do you lower the risk of failure for Flight Model 1 or FM1?
Tolker-Nielsen: We have done everything that can be done on the ground to ensure that this inaugural flight is a success. I’m quite excited and 98% confident! Things look good at this point. The launcher is fully qualified on the ground. We feel reasonably confident about launching on July 9 as we solve minor problems on a daily basis. On this demonstration flight, we have thousands of sensors on the rocket to measure the performances and validate our models. Then, we’ll need five months until the second flight to analyze all the flight data.
Will the next challenge be the industrial ramp-up to launch nine Ariane 6 rockets yearly?
It’s a big challenge given that we’ve already signed 30 contracts, 18 of which are dedicated to Amazon’s Kuiper constellation. It’s pretty unique to have such an order book for a new rocket. We are already working on a quick ramp-up after the inaugural flight. After resolving the possible anomalies, the first commercial flight is scheduled by the end of the year. Then we’ll have six flights in 2025 and eight flights in 2026. In 2027, there will be 10 flights because we have numerous payloads waiting. Otherwise, we’re aiming for a steady state of nine flights per year in 2028 and 2029.
The ramp-up challenge is already happening in Kourou and throughout the full industrial chain in the 13 European countries building Ariane 6. The manufacturing of the first batch of 15 launchers is well underway. We are currently negotiating contracts for Ariane 6 flights 16 to 42. That’s the challenging production plan everybody is committed to.
With the current business plan of four institutional European launches plus five commercial ones, will Ariane 6 still need subsidies of 340 million euros ($365 million) annually until 2031?
The 13 ESA states involved in Ariane 6 have already agreed on funds for an inaugural test flight and 14 operational missions. Now we’re discussing the operational income over three years with nine launches per year. We’re analyzing the business plan for launcher batch FM16 to 42, looking at all the launch service contracts and costs. We’ll need between 290 million euros and 340 million euros per year. The final number will be determined after auditing industry and supplier costs and the income from contracts signed by Arianespace. In any case, we’ll not need more than 340 million euros to achieve the operating balance of the new launcher. Toni Tolker-Nielsen. Credit: ©ESA/Damien Dos Santos.
Is it the price for European sovereignty to have access to space?
Exactly, Ariane 6 is a sovereign launcher for European access to space. Today we are in a delicate situation. That’s why last November, at the European ministerial meeting of Seville, we found a good solution to secure funding for this European space program. Twenty years ago, Ariane 5 was supported by the EGAS (European Guaranteed Access to Space with $120 to $240 million support per year) program to provide Europe with a robust launch service.
Is Ariane 6 still in line to achieve a 40% cost reduction compared to Ariane 5?
We are working to achieve the 40% goal set in 2014, and we shall get there. In 2022 and 2023, Europe suffered from high inflation, but that is now slowing down. We have asked the commercial operator Arianespace, the aerospace company ArianeGroup, and the suppliers for more cost reductions. It’s underway, but we don’t want the European industry to lose money either.
Is it an illusion to believe that Ariane 6 could still make some commercial profits like the previous Ariane 4 and 5?
Ariane 4 was in service from 1988 to 2003 and was an incredibly profitable launcher because it was alone on the commercial market. The U.S. Space Shuttle wasn’t a commercial competitor. Even when Ariane 5 was able to launch two large satellites, it required some financial support. Independent access to space always represents an important cost.
If Starship is successful, will it be a game-changer with a fall in prices per kilo in orbit?
Honestly, I don’t think Starship will be a game-changer or a real competitor. This huge launcher is designed to fly people to the moon and Mars. Ariane 6 is perfect for the job if you need to launch a four- or five-ton satellite. Starship will not eradicate Ariane 6 at all. Far in the future, like in 2040, the situation will be different. We’ll probably have a space transportation logistics system with recurrent and reusable launchers flying to a hub. In that hub, there will be platforms, satellites, and spacecraft going to other destinations, refueling and servicing capabilities, in-orbit manufacturing, etc. Starship will probably have a big role in carrying heavy cargo to this space logistics hub, like a container ship getting to a terminal. Europe is already working on this vision with the development of space cargo, in-orbit refueling, in-space docking systems, and traffic to the Moon using Ariane 6.
Lately, Elon Musk has been saying that only reusable launchers make sense. With only nine or 10 launches per year for Ariane 6, does the capability to be reusable make sense in Europe?
We made the choice of not being reusable with Ariane 6 exactly because of this argument. Our launch needs are so low that it wouldn’t make sense economically. So, we don’t really need it at this point. But when we’ll launch frequently in the future, we’ll need reusability for economic reasons. The second reason to have reusability for a European launcher is sustainability. We must have a circular economy in 10 or 20 years; we need to be sustainable. And for that, we are already developing Themis, which is a European demonstrator with a reusable main stage and other reusable technologies such as the Prometheus engine. But already, this decade we’ll have Maia, a privately developed launcher supported by France which is small but reusable. Maia will use the Prometheus liquid propellant rocket engine and will be based on the technology of the Themis reusable stage demonstrator.
How important are the mini and micro launchers for Europe?
Compared to 10 years ago, I’m extremely surprised to see all these mini and micro launchers booming all around Europe. They are developed in Spain, France, Norway, Sweden, the UK. For the first time, new spaceports are being built in Europe. It’s incredible. We want to change the paradigm in the launcher sector in Europe by introducing competition, which is well underway in numerous start-ups. The European Launcher Challenge, which was announced last year in Seville, will play an important role in shaping the future of Europe’s access to space by increasing the competitiveness of European launch services. The idea is to make these privately developed launchers grow right up to heavy launchers. They all have the ambition to do so.
How can you combine competition between private launchers in Europe and the “georeturn” policy, which has been ESA’s industrial policy for 40 years?
For the micro launchers, it’s not driven by “georeturn,” we just choose the best proposals, and we hope the ESA member state that corresponds to this offer will finance it. Note that these start-ups in some cases have a large geographical industrial distribution beyond their national borders. For example, the French privately developed Maia micro launcher chose 40% of its suppliers outside France. And these suppliers are often the same as Ariane 6 suppliers.
Can Ariane 6 maximize the future ESA lunar lander Argonaut performance to contribute to the Artemis program?
We are already working on a more powerful version of Ariane 6, called Block Two. With more powerful boosters, a better performance of the upper stage through an increase in engine thrust to 200 kN, the gain is two tons to LEO. It will allow the deployment of the Kuiper constellation. We won’t take a decision about Block Three, a more powerful version called an Black upper stage, until the November 2025 European ministerial meeting. As an alternative to increase Ariane 6 performances, we are looking at in-orbit refueling, working on an Argonaut concept with in-orbit refueling to increase its performance. So, with two Ariane 6s, we launch a full reservoir and an Argonaut with its payload and little fuel. Then we will dock to the tank to refuel. This scenario gives a big increase in performance to get cargo to the Moon surface. Argonaut is a European lunar lander that will provide autonomous access to the Moon for Europe, allowing us to play a major role on the surface of our natural satellite. In the 2030s, Argonaut, launched on Ariane 6, will deliver up to 2,100 kg of cargo to the Moon’s surface.
If ESA decides to have European crewed spaceflights, is Ariane 6 up to the job?
Ariane 6 can be a human-rated launcher with some modifications. But we can also invest in a safety system for the capsule to make it safe for the crew in case of launch failure. We have a contract to find the best trade-off between these two options in the next year. Any decision to then pursue these options lies with ESA Member States and in this instance only, ESA would not favor any particular launcher; it would ask industry to come up with proposals.
Should ESA already be thinking about a reusable Ariane 7 for the next decade?
I don’t think at least for now that ESA is planning to make the choice of its own developed launcher. For Ariane 6, we own almost everything, such as the vehicle launch system, the manufacturing facilities, the launcher definition, the launchpad, etc. In the future, it will be totally different; the launcher will be privately developed. We’ll just buy services, like the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program in the U.S. NASA is doing both. We won’t develop a European SLS.
For now, Ariane 6 is a modular launcher. It’s a perfect system because Ariane 62 (530 tons with two boosters) is replacing the Russian Soyuz, and Ariane 64 (850 tons with four boosters) is replacing Ariane 5. So it covers all our needs. Ariane 6 could be the European workhorse for the next 15 to 30 years.

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